Why property taxes can't be reduced or do we understand where our money goes?
We have found this article by Michael Mayo, from the Sun Sentinel to be illustrative about how the tax reduction talk might most likely end up in . . . talk. Budgets have grown so fat that, unless citizens' action occurs promptly, cities and counties will strongly resist before allowing any tax reduction.
If a politician engineers an outrageous pay raise, it doesn't take long for citizens to snap to attention.
Funny, then, how the bigger, more outrageous things can slide along more subtly.
Such is the story in Hallandale Beach, where Vice Mayor Bill Julian's rescinded attempt to boost city commissioners' salaries from $20,500 to $75,000 triggered angry howls and brought camera-toting media hordes to City Hall last week.
"I feel like a leper. I'm public enemy No. 1," Julian said Monday. "I would have been better off getting an intern pregnant."
It's easy to go off on Julian, because he still doesn't get it. One minute he's apologizing for his "dumb" and "stupid" maneuvers, the next he's unapologetically detailing plans to push for a smaller raise, "maybe $6,000-8,000," in upcoming budget hearings.
But where's the outrage that the city's budget has gone from $68 million to $93 million in the past two years, a 36 percent increase? Where's the outrage that the city has seen its cash reserves dwindle from $52.6 million in 2005 to a projected $30.3 million at the end of this budget year?
Where's the outrage that the current budget includes a discretionary $2.1 million fund for the city manager to hire outside consultants and additional personnel?
With one dunderheaded move, Julian has become the symbol for all that's wrong with municipal government: the bloat, the sense of entitlement, the sneaky tactics to bypass the public.
Julian brought up the proposal at an unrecorded lunch planning session last Wednesday, and it passed 3-2. But it didn't hold up to the light of day. On Friday, the commission unanimously rescinded the raise.
"Ethically, it was on the border," Julian said. "I didn't give the public a chance to give their input, and that's not right. I know it's not our money, it's the people's money. ... The way I did it gives the perception of deception."
He also did it at the worst possible time, with the Legislature poised to chop property taxes and local governments carping about the havoc it will wreak on essential services.
For all the heated reaction to the raises, the bigger issues behind spiraling city budgets often get lost.
One, involving future worker pension benefits, has been quietly playing out the past 19 months. Hallandale Beach has some 250 unionized city workers who haven't had a pay raise since October 2005, when their contract lapsed.
They are caught in the crossfire of a bigger battle with national implications. It's one that cities have to win for a semblance of budget sanity.
The city wants to change workers' pensions from a traditional "defined benefit" fixed pension to a riskier "defined contribution" 401K-type plan that most private sector firms now offer.
Representatives of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are resisting.
"This is the future," said Assistant City Manager Mark Antonio.
But in the future, Julian's chutzpah is what people all over South Florida will remember, even if the scuttled raises amount to a drop in the fiscal bucket. I asked if he thought voters would forget by the time of his next election, in 2011.
"I think people should forget by the end of the month," Julian said. "What do they want to do, flog me on the City Hall steps? This is the first mistake I've made in six years. It's a big one. But at least I'm big enough to admit I did wrong."
Julian, a former thoroughbred trainer, was re-elected to a four-year term in March. He received 942 votes in a city of 18,442 registered voters. The city has about 35,000 residents.
"The apathy is unbelievable," Julian said. He said the commission switched from day to night meetings to accommodate the public, and "we still only get like three people in the audience."
No wonder these people feel they have a license to steal.
Michael Mayo's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Read him every weekday online at Sun-Sentinel.com/mayoblog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4508.